Is there something that can still be called Hong Kong cinema? That was always a complex question given its position as a national cinema that happens to be a colony. But it has become an even more loaded one since turning into a Chinese autonomous zone. Filmmakers western cinephiles associate with local cinema like Tsui Hark or Stephen Chow, dedicate themselves through the past decade that are better described as Chinese even as co-productions and nostalgia keeps one saying otherwise. There’s still a regional cinema around there, Louis Koo, in particular, has dedicated considerable time and money to keep local industry alive, but the distance between movies with budget, whose main focus is mainland China and local productions keep getting bigger.
For a western cinephile the name Hong Kong for the past 40 years brings to mind violent crime films, and They remain the most popular local movies around here, while also occupying an increasingly tenuous place. There’s the matter of Chinese censorship which operates over crime movies in a very similar way to the old Hays Code did in Hollywood until the mid-60s’: police need to be shown as good and efficient and any criminal activity must be punished by the end. There’s also a change in local audience taste which through the past two decades favor more towards comedies and romances, something made sharper after the 2019 protests. Without getting deep into them, it is far too complex a subject for a movie article like this, it is certain that the local police image come out of it very hurt with a large amount of tales of unprovoked violence. When popular website Lovehkfilm, which despite being written in English has a strong local reader base, made a fan poll of best 2010’s Hong Kong movies, Johnnie To’s Drug War was the only crime movie placing in the top 10.
Most current Hong Kong crime movies are period pieces, the Chinese government looks the other way when the period cover was during British rule, often lead by veteran stars who’ve worked on the genre for at least two decades and almost always come with a strong nostalgia factor. Movies about the pre holdover days suggest that the world got frozen around 1993. This year even got a movie called Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong set in the 1970s whose stars average 57 years (51-year-old Louis Koo was the youth in the main cast). Since Chinese cinemas reopened late last year, however, there’s been a strong crop of crime films that break some with this image: Shock Wave 2 (Herman Yau), Raging Fire (Benny Chan) and above all Limbo (Soi Cheang). Those are robust action films that make good use of Chinese industry strengths, are set currently, and make use of its law-and-order tales to allegorize a territory under contest.
Shock Wave 2 (a sequel in name only as often happens there) and Raging Fire have almost the same plot seen for opposing angles, both dealing with radicalized former cops who perceive themselves as betrayed by the Chinese government. On the former, Andy Lau plays a bomb disarm specialist who loses a leg on an Explosion and after physiotherapy learns the government has no interest on sending him back on the line of duty. In the latter, Nicholas Tse just gets out a jail sentence for killing a suspect and is certain the system was supposed to protect cop violence. Lau is, of course, far more likable on his grievances, despite Raging Fire recognizing that most cops’ abuse of force does go unpunished. Lau is an anti-hero and Tse is the psychotic baddie of their respective movies, but they occupy the same place as mobilizers of a resentment that discharges a series of violent waves. In both movies there’s good cops as counterpoint, with Lau Ching Wan as an old friend of Lau ready to filter the action through a moral gaze and Donnie Yen as Tse’s old mentor who must catch him. Those characters are correct, moral, and boring.
Those two movies have very similar names that promise purging violence and their action scene strategies follow from there. Those are not movies about criminality, but terrorism, Hong Kong’s public space regular taken by eruptions of violence, the police main job becoming containment. The action in Shock Wave 2 is overblown and with careful elaborate choreography with Yau design expansive scenes with Lau at center that often suggest the idea of crossroads with Hong Kong as a space in moral dispute. Raging Fire is blunter and more brutal, a series of shootouts and chases like director Chan always enjoyed who move up towards destruction. Michael Mann’s influence all over it with Chan doing multiple variations on Heat’s post heist shootout. If its drama moves towards law-and-order, images suggest an escape through anarchy of actions. Raging Fire is technically a vehicle for Donnie Yen and it makes good use of his image as a nationalist hero developed through the last decade in the Ip Man movies, but its pleasures come through the demolition promoted by Tse and his partners, one knows they must be punished by the end, but lives dangerously as they execute cops and blow stuff up. The conformist narrative is getting consumed by the anarchic form.
Those are far from well-rounded movies. Shock Wave 2 goes weak in the third act part because it is hard to keep extending a deadlock and part because it needs to keep its terrorist organization as vague as possible. Raging Fire, like many Benny Chan movies, has some difficulties animating its drama and all the talk about Yen and Tse as blood brothers sounds like a concession to local traditions more than something it cares about. Chan passed away after the shooting, but before editing got finished, the movie respects the moment by moment excitement of his better work. The final credits play over scenes of him working on set making explicit that it is a posthumous movie and adding a distance from the more immediate action. Shock Wave 2 also doesn’t hide its self-reflective tendencies, Lau anti-hero remains a figure everyone projects desire. Lau probably represents Hong Kong’s cinema more than any other actor or filmmaker regular working; he remains extremely popular in Asia as an actor and singer and far more identified with Hong Kong than China and he remains relevant and not enclosed in nostalgia. In Shock Wave 2, he finally gets turned into Hong Kong cinema itself, trying to remain relevant, serving its Chinese benefactors and a series of conflicting wills impossible to solve.
Limbo is more ambitious than Shock Wave 2 and Raging Fire and less given to concessions. It has a genre plot, in this case a serial killer procedural, but it is far more invested in its setting. If the violence in those movies carried allegorical weight, in Limbo Hong Kong itself is the space promised by the title. The careful black and White cinematography that reimagines Hong Kong as a nightmare in shades of gray strengths the unreality of acts that start to exist largely for their symbolic value.
I’ve written on director Soi Cheang multiple times on the past but unfortunely only in Portuguese and since he made SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (my pick for best straightforward action movie made anywhere in the last decade), he has dedicated himself to a series of movies about the mythic Chinese figure of the monkey king reimagined as large budget CGI spectacles. They struck me as a waste of his considerable talents, but the three movies were very popular in China and Limbo suggests a movie made with the kind of blank check one wishes talented people wasting their time on well-made popular junk would be allowed to get away with, but that is rarely actually done.
The plot gears towards two cops, a surly and abusive veteran and a young one who offers a more pleasant counter to him, using an ex-con informant to move through the underworld trying to catch the killer. A lot of the movie’s emotional center is given to the efforts of actress Liu Yase of moving between would-be criminal acquaintances, the killer, and the increasingly unstable and violent veteran cop (well played by genre vet Gordon Lam). The movie is sustained through the act of moving through a Hong Kong in ruins. The limbo of the foreign title couldn’t be clearer (the Cantonese one refers to the rotten teeth that annoys the young cop through the movie, so let’s just say Cheang isn’t exactly subtle on this one).
Limbo is by principle an experiential film. A triumph of dirty and charged art direction, that uses the dumping ground central setting as a starting place to expand the idea for the whole town. The decapitated women’s limbs found by the police double themselves in a whole abandoned city. The investigation has some similarities with the second Half of Kurosawa’s High and Low, camera and police united in a sharp eye towards forgotten places. Hong Kong usually appears in movies as a capitalist success story, a place of modernity and promise of a new world that worked, Limbo offers the opposing view, a tight, unpleasant place, left behind by China and the West. Hong Kong doesn’t belong to anyone, and it is condemned to sink into oblivion. What a lot of Cheang’s always clear framing charts how to negotiate moving through hostile territory. The idea of the city as a prison is a recurring one in Cheang’s thrillers and find in Limbo a maximalist expression. When it debuted early this year at Berlin Film Festival some critics made the connection between Limbo and Hard to be a God, Aleksey German’s epic medieval science fiction, and if those sound like very different movies, they do operate through similar aesthetic-narrative concepts, monumental diggings through violent suffocating baroque worlds.
Cheang is a far more practical filmmaker than German. If the movies share a certain baroque delirium, Limbo is far more direct and propulsive. The world Building settles than meanings, but the movie never drowns on its weight. It is far too punishing a movie to be a populist one, but it never stops being exciting. Midway through it, Cheang stages an elaborate chase that mixes the multiple groups around the informant that is more gripping than anything one might find at a more conventional movie this year, it is geographic clear and taken by physical wait and sense of consequence one doesn’t meet very often. It is the entire movie in one miniature short and the concept of cinema read through action in its most idealized form. If Limbo is the nightmare of a city suffocating on garbage and trying and failing to appease multiple desires, it is also far too exciting to fully drown on those ideas, its physical spectacle superimposing over the horrors it allows to resonate.
What keeps Limbo very close to Shock Wave 2 and Raging Fire is this constant bet in the city streets as a space in turmoil. They are fantasies of social convulsion with distinct end points but animated by the same malaise.